Hudlin, Reginald and Warrington
Reginald and Warrington Hudlin
The Hudlin brothers began their cinematic explorations in film school, graduated to short films and documentaries, and proceeded to make their Hollywood debut with the hit comedy House Party, which earned in box-office receipts more than ten times what it cost to make. The film established the brothers as a formidable dual presence. They went on to make the smash Boomerang and to develop a number of other projects, all the while maintaining a commitment to black filmmakers.
Spurred by what he described to the New York Times as “institutional disenfranchisement,” Warrington helped establish a foundation that provides support and venues to others in their field. Indeed, it has been the support network between the brothers themselves that has served as a buffer against the perilous nature of Hollywood. In a dialogue with Boomerang co-star David Alan Grier, published in Interview, Warrington declared of their relationship, “We keep an eye on each other.” Reggie interjected: “Man, we keep an eye on them sharks that be circling us. That’s what we’re keeping our eye on.”
The Hudlin brothers were born in East Saint Louis, Missouri; Warrington is the eldest by almost ten years, separated from Reginald by a middle brother, Christopher, who never developed an interest in filmmaking and went into business instead. The boys’ father, Warrington, Sr., sold insurance; their mother, Helen, taught junior high school. “East Saint Louis is the kind of place where, when you drive across the city limits, the police stop you and say, ‘Have you got any guns in that car?’” quipped Warrington to Premiere, describing the town where they were raised. “If you say no, they give you one.”
Comparing it to the lawless Old West prototype Dodge City, Reginald added that “it has produced, given its size, a disproportionate number of artists: [musicians] Ike and Tina Turner, Miles Davis, Chuck Berry. So despite the poverty, culturally, we’re kickin’.” Warrington, Sr. told the New York Times that he encouraged his sons as his own father, Edward Hudlin, had encouraged him; Edward “would get absolutely incensed at any idea that you were limited because you were black.” Warrington, Jr. took his father’s encouragement to heart: he won a scholarship to Yale University. Several years later, baby brother Reginald headed for Harvard.
At Yale, Warrington intended to pursue a professional path into medicine or law. But the arrival of mainstream black
Reginald Hudlin born c. 1962 in East St. Louis, MO; son of Warrington, Sr. (a schoolteacher and insurance executive), and Helen (a schoolteacher) Hudlin. Education: Graduated from Harvard University film school.
Warrington Hudlin born c. 1953 in East Saint Louis, MO; son of Warrington, Sr. and Helen Hudlin. Education: Graduated from Yale University film school.
Reginald directed shorts House Party, 1983; Reggie’s World of Soul; and The Kold Waves. Warrington founded Black Filmmaker Foundation, 1978; directed documentaries Black at Yale, 1978, Street Corner Stories, 1979, and The Making of School Daze, 1986; artist-in-resi-dence, WGBH-TV, Boston, MA, and WNET-TV, New York City. The brothers’ collaborations include feature films, House Party, 1990, and Boomerang, 1992; also videos for Heavy D and the Boyz, Guy, George Clinton, and others, 1986–93; signed with Tri-Star, 1991; signed with Fox network, 1993.
Awards: (Reginald) New England Academy Award for best student film, 1983, for House Party; (both brothers) Filmmakers Trophy and award for cinematography, Sundance Film Festival, 1990, for full-length feature, House Party.
Addresses: Agent —Dave Wirtschafter, International Creative Management, 8942 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90211. Office —Black Filmmaker Foundation, 375 Greenwich St., 6th Floor, New York, NY 10013; 10401 Venice Blvd., Suites 212–18, Los Angeles, CA 90034.
filmmaking—namely the 1971 “blaxploitation” cop drama Shaft —caught his attention and never let go. “I hadn’t even conceived of blacks making films,” he told David Vierling of Berlinaletip. “It inspired me and presented new possibilities. Of course, Hollywood then started to exploit this new-found market.”
At the time, the only avenue for black filmmakers who wanted to chart their own creative course was independent work. Thus Warrington made his way into documentary film. Even so, his films had little opportunity to be seen outside the museum circuit. In reaction to this, in 1978, he founded the Black Filmmaker Foundation (BFF)—“to draw international attention to Black American cinema,” as he phrased it to Vierling. The foundation helped distribute films and provided networking opportunities, so that members of the community could meet and share resources.
“Before, black filmmakers were on their own,” Warrington explained. “We want to solidify our distribution efforts, export films, and design our own exhibition programs. Internally, within black communities, we have to expand an exhibition network to show that filmmaking is a possibility for the people: not magic and Hollywood, but something they can really do. The main thing is to create a climate so that there can be funding support and appreciation for the finished work.” Among its many accomplishments, the organization helped gather funds for director Spike Lee’s breakthrough comedy She’s Gotta Have It, which catapulted Lee into the cinematic mainstream in 1988 and drew the attention of Hollywood executives to the ample creative resources of the African American film community.
Warrington’s documentary debut, Black at Yale, was followed by Street Corner Stories, a straightforward piece about black men in New Haven, Connecticut—Yale’s unofficially segregated home—that generated not only interest but controversy. “The language is often vulgar, the stories painful, the misogyny keen,” reported Patricia Jones in the Village Voice. “Hudlin’s film was in no way exploitative or degrading. These were simply ordinary black men doing what ordinary black men often do, but the language, the bitterness in the stories, the seemingly ‘defeatist’ attitudes of some of them did not add up to anything like a positive image.”
A positive image is what many in the black community have sought from black art, and the objections raised to the film’s content threatened briefly to prevent its 1979 premiere on New York public television. The film went on to be translated and distributed throughout Europe. Warrington, its creator, met with similar success; he eventually served as an artist-in-residence at New York’s WNET and at Boston’s WGBH. He received a major break when Lee brought him on the set of his first big-studio feature, School Daze, to shoot a documentary about the filming.
Reginald, meanwhile, had been coming up with film scenarios since his youth. “I wasn’t even in high school yet, and I kept telling Warrington my film ideas,” he told Patrick Pacheco in the New York Times. “Then one Christmas, he gave me a book with blank pages and said, ‘Here, write your ideas down in this.’” At Harvard, Reggie also made films, though his work tended toward the narrative and the comedic. His academic oeuvre includes Reggie’s World of Soul, a video parody of black pop culture; The Kold Waves, about a white drummer trying to join a black funk group; and his senior thesis, a prize-winning short called House Party.
Warrington underscored the importance of music in their work to Variety’s Amy Dawes: “One of the reasons I became a filmmaker was that I couldn’t play an instrument.” Just as jazz and blues framed Warrington’s documentaries, so hip-hop dominated the soundtracks of Reggie’s independent short films. Indeed, critic Greg Tate opined in the Village Voice that the work of the younger Hudlin “shamelessly exploits the look and lore of hiphop like it was his personal lingua franca.” Despite noise from the critics, music would continue to figure prominently in the Hudlin brothers’ professional collaborations.
The brothers had become aficionados of classic cinema, haunting the art houses for screenings of features by Akira Kurosawa, Francois Truffaut, Federico Fellini and the American screwball comedies of the 1940s by directors like Preston Sturges. As Pacheco noted, Reggie came of age when black filmmakers—partly due to the efforts of the BFF—saw greater possibilities for access on the horizon. “I really wanted to do it all,” the younger Hudlin recalled, “and I couldn’t see any reason why not. My palette is very broad.”
After graduation, Reggie and Warrington became a team, dividing up responsibilities on each project. In an interview with Dollars & Sense, the brothers nutshelled their various duties: Warrington described the producer as “captain of the business side” of filmmaking, while Reginald called the director “the captain of the creative side,” adding, “Since the business and creative sides affect one another, we have to work in concert. Each person brings his point of view to the table. Whoever is the originator is the shepherd of that particular project.” Their first collaboration on a feature came with the full-length version of Reggie’s “House Party.” New Line Pictures liked the concept—they knew that the short had won a student Academy Award in 1983—and helped green-light the project.
The film featured the successful rap duo Kid ‘N’ Play in the lead roles, and the two were naturals for the protagonists: two teenagers—one decidedly more straightlaced than the other—who attend a massive house party despite being grounded. Made for around $2.5 million—a pittance by Hollywood standards—1990’s House Party was a smash. In addition to box-office success, the film won critical recognition, scoring the Filmmakers Trophy and an award for cinematography at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival.
Best of all, House Party was a mainstream comedy about black life without the heavy-handedness or cultural isolation sometimes associated with “black film.” As Reginald was quoted as saying by the Detroit Free Press, the movie “lets its black teenagers swear, cut up, get down, make out, break rules, make mischief and really have fun—just like the white kids in [hit teen comedies] Risky Business, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Sixteen Candles, Porky’s, et al.—and still be seen as decent, likable young people.”
In the wake of their first mainstream feature, the Hudlins were defensive about their so-called “crossover” success—moving away from their “black” focus and grabbing a general audience. “The crossover is a double cross,” Warrington declared to Premiere. “The advantage black filmmakers have is that because our particular experience in this country has been historically kept off-camera, we have 400 years of undocumented experience.”
Several years later, his attitude towards reaching a larger audience had mellowed: He noted in Daily Variety: “I think the way to reach a crossover is not by adding elements like white buddies and sidekicks and those kinds of formulas to the story. Find the artist[ic] truth, in quotes, and you successfully get the crossover.” But if the Hudlins had reassessed some of their views, they certainly had relinquished none of their control over their work, despite the machinations of studio executives and others. “That’s one advantage to Ivy League education,” Warrington noted to Pacheco. “You know how to play their game.”
The effect of House Party was instant; it made the Hudlins players in Hollywood and went on to spawn two sequels. The brothers were overwhelmed with studio offers, eventually signing a multi-film deal with Tri-Star—in part because of Christopher Lee, one of the few non-white executives they encountered. The brothers soon received a call from Eddie Murphy, one of filmdom’s biggest stars. “He called us after House Party,” Reggie recalled in Interview. “He said he really dug it.” Working with a script by Barry W. Blaustein and David Sheffield—adapted from Murphy’s story idea—about a lothario ad executive who experiences a serious romantic turnabout, Reggie directed Boomerang; Warrington produced it.
The film suggests the screwball comedies the brothers adore, with a hip-hop soundtrack and a much higher sexual ante. Warrington explained to Pacheco that they had to reassure Paramount that audiences would accept a sophisticated, professional Murphy character and “that we could be true to our black culture and still be commercial. What’s selling out there in white America, what’s hip, is black-designed pop culture. If they could understand that, then our blackness wouldn’t be a problem. It would be an advantage. We’re actually very mainstream.”
Reviews of Boomerang were mixed—Jack Kroll praised it in Newsweek as a “shrewd, engaging, impudently sexy comedy” while Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers had difficulty “imagin[ing] this sexist trip is coming from the Hudlin brothers, who exploded ugly stereotypes in House Party.” In any event, the film was a smash, grossing $47 million within a month of its release.
The Hudlin’s next collaboration was Bebe’s Kids, touted as the first all-black animated feature. Written by Reggie and directed by animator Bruce Smith, the film is based on work by the late comedian Robin Harris. In 1993 they signed a two-year contract with the Fox network and worked on various music videos, including funkmeister George Clinton’s “Paint the White House Black.” Meanwhile, the BFF continued assisting black films. “The studios are just learning how to sell black movies and they are making mistakes,” Warrington told Dollars & Sense. “I hope studios have a vast learning curve. That’s why we are so important.” He added that he hoped to help amplify “the sympathetic voice of the black American woman filmmaker.”
Ultimately, however, the Hudlins aim to make films that appeal to audiences on their own terms. “There’s a strong tradition of ethnic filmmaking in America that is so well-crafted that we simply go past its ethnicity and accept it as American cinema,” Warrington noted to Daily Variety, “and we want to contribute to that.” As Reggie told Pacheco, “As much as I’m interested in being positive, I’m more interested in being authentic—and funny. People don’t go to the movies to be preached at. They go to be entertained. If you’re funny enough and real enough, you can reach out to anybody.”
Berlinaletip, October 1981.
Daily Variety, June 22, 1990, pp. 1, 12; September 14, 1993; October 8, 1993.
Detroit Free Press, August 4, 1992, pp. 1-B, 4-B.
Dollars & Sense, January 1993, pp. 9–13.
Elle, March 1990.
Entertainment Weekly, October 11, 1991, p. 14.
Interview, July 1987; July 1992.
Los Angeles Times, July 20, 1992, p. F-3.
Newsweek, July 6, 1992, p. 54.
New York Times, July 26, 1992, pp. 9, 12.
Premiere, January 1990.
Rolling Stone, August 6, 1992, pp. 63–4.
Village Voice, August 27, 1980, pp. 42–4; January 7, 1986.
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